Tenpei Sato is true to form in Nippon Ichi Software’s latest release, Coven and Labyrinth of Refrain. While the team takes a lot of creative risks with the design of the game, Sato’s contribution is largely what I have come to expect based on his other works with NIS. This similarity has some benefits and drawbacks, but if you are a fan of his style, this album delivers and is an above average example of his work.
Alone, the album carries itself well, bringing a diverse set of gentle and hard hitting themes all in Sato’s whimsical style. Also, at 40 tracks, we get to hear a lot of variety and variations. Most songs are quite short, but musically dense, and tend to work well outside of the game. Unfortunately, in the game, Sato’s style is a miss on many points. The short tracks used during the almost thirty minute long plot sequences become extremely repetitive. Conversely, Sato’s 10 to 20 second build ups become all you hear of his combat and traveling themes during the actual dungeon crawls. The mismatch between Sato’s compositions and the game’s use of them could have been fixed with some engineering choices and techniques from other DRPGs — for example, after combat, resuming the dungeon-traveling theme where it left off as opposed to restarting from the beginning — but as it is, normal gameplay makes it difficult to enjoy many of the songs.
Half of the game is conversation and storytelling that will prove familiar to Disgaea fans, and Sato brings melodies designed to complement all manner of conversations and events. Like a conversation, these pieces weave in and out with gentle crescendos and lulls. In the song “Time Goes By,” these waves come in the form of Sato’s take on various classic dance rhythms. My favorite of these is “Bell of Nightfall” which features a meandering organ and strings playing a waltz at a dirge-like pace, expanding the instrumentation and forcefulness with each repeat of the main melody.
In buying this album, I really wanted to hear how Sato would adapt his style to fit the steady meditative tension of a dungeon crawl. He made some noticeable deviations for some songs, but most are not different from his usual work. “Twisted Time” uses a few tricks uncommon for Sato, layering an airy electronic sound with his melodic style for an uncharacteristic sound that was well executed and stood out. On the other hand, “Sign of The Death” fit very much with his style, and used a slow paced tango as traveling music.
His harder hitting combat themes are what you would expect if you’ve heard one of his Disgaea soundtracks, but there’s a numerous selection, as would be hoped for the many fights of a dungeon crawler. The songs “Green Blood,” “Detuned Beat,” “Dramatic Soldier,” and “Under Crasher” make up half of the high energy tracks, which feature Sato’s re-imagined style of rock melodies that are a great accompaniment to the battle sequences.
Of course, Sato includes a number of quirky, lighthearted pieces. “Girls Bravo” is a horn-powered swing number and “Make a Fuss” features a cartoonish series of bells, wind, and strings chasing each other along melodic scales for accompanying frenetic slapstick moments in the story. I was really happy to hear “Wasteland,” which seems to be Sato’s take on music from the American west. Combined with his love of eastern European melodies and instruments, it ends up sounding both more authentic and unique than most modern takes on a western theme.
Sato includes two pop ballads: “A the ha lluri da” featuring the voice of Emi Evans, and “More Than Words” which is uncredited. “More Than Words” is my favorite of the two, and closely aligns with his prior works and the album as a whole. The voice comes in for part of the song and simply tones with the theme, not singing any words. “A the ha lluri da” is pretty standard pop fare, and the un-vocalized version is one of the weakest tracks on the album. However, with Evans’ voice, it is a great song. It doesn’t fit well with the rest of the soundtrack and I imagine it plays with the ending credits rather than any part of normal gameplay.
With longer albums like this, I like to carefully evaluate each individual track, and I’m happy to say the vast majority come out on top. The exceptions include one dud, “Nightmare Disorder,” and about five pieces that felt underwhelming. Coming in at 40 tracks, this is quite impressive, and above the norm for Sato. I lean towards placing this album as my second favorite of his soundtracks, just behind Phantom Brave, not only because of its high quality but also its diversity, covering the gamut of Sato’s techniques and thematic tendencies. The tracks lean a bit on the shorter side, but at 99 minutes the album is longer than most of his, which probably contributes to the variety.
If you are not a fan of Sato’s music, this album won’t change your mind. I would have liked to hear him branch out a bit more, however it is one of his better soundtracks. If you enjoy his work and are looking for more, I would suggest not to miss this one. Currently it is only available with the limited edition of the game’s Japanese release, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it shows up as a stand-alone album soon, so keep an eye out for that. Also, as a major NIS release, NIS America has reprinted this two disc set in its entirety with their LE / collector’s edition release of the game.